By Ivett de las Mercedes
HAVANA TIMES – In Cuba, an electrical appliance, car, bike or anything else has a different expiry date than anywhere else in the world. It isn’t strange for cobblers to be in high demand in the 21st century.
Eugenio Mendez de la O., has been working as a cobbler for 25 years, in one of the doorways on Villegas St. in Old Havana. He has been respecting social distancing guidelines since May, but he spoke to Havana Times before that.
HT: Your job is very solitary. You spend a lot of time sewing. How did you get started in this profession?
Eugenio Mendez: It was by chance. When I was a teenager, there was a cobbler near my house in Lawton. I needed his services, one day. The only pair of boots I had come unstitched. My mother started screaming blue murder because I couldn’t go to school, so I had no other choice but to go to the old cobbler.
I remember that the cobbler didn’t want to charge me because he was a family friend. I sat next to him and watched how he would put in the needle, thread it and then sew. I was taken aback by his agility and how calmly he worked. I was fed up of school and needed money, I already had a girlfriend by then and my father had left the house. I didn’t think twice: I asked him to teach me. I was his apprentice within a month. It’s true that this is a solitary profession. Sometimes, if people are talking to us, we run the risk of making a mistake. I, at least, spend a lot of time thinking.
HT: Was the training period hard?
EM: At first, I found it really hard to put the needle in, but over time, I learned that it wasn’t about using force but skill. He would finish six shoes in the time it took me to sew one. But it had a lot to do with the peace that came with the job, my life was full of shouting and arguments, and this manual work was like a breather amidst the storm. It’s incredible how such a simple and ill-perceived job can make you feel good. People think that a cobbler is beneath them or just an invisible being. My mother never got used to the idea, although we’ve always had food on the table since then.
HT: Did you have a good relationship with your teacher?
EM: Yes, I was very lucky. Ramon’s son had left Cuba and moved abroad. I found his attentiveness and way of speaking very strange in the beginning. I had never met a man who was so calm and polite. The truth is he didn’t only teach me how to be a cobbler. My father never had any patience with me. He was a mechanic and didn’t even teach me how to twist a bolt.
Everything happened over time, as if it wasn’t deliberate. For example, he never had to tell me to be friendly to customers, especially the elderly, who he charged less. It was his way of being that slowly softened my character. My mother was the first one to realize. I was a completely different person within the year.
Whenever I had to deal with a difficult customer who wasn’t happy with his work, he would find an excuse to go into the back and I had to fix the problem on my own. Believe me, I ran into all kinds of problems in those early years, and was on the verge of having a heart attack a lot of the time. Today, whenever a customer comes in to complain about something not very nicely, I can assure you they either leave a lifelong customer and if not, I give them the address of another cobbler who can help them. It isn’t easy to deal with the public, you have to have a lot of patience.
HT: What materials do you use? Are they hard to get a hold of?
EM: I get my materials from the Cuevita fair, in San Miguel del Padro, a lot of the time. Especially soles for sandals and sneakers. I use this same fold in the rubber sole to make the bottom of heels. Baje and Demoduro glues are the most widely used here, but go missing a lot of the time. Sometimes, I have to pay a lot of money for these two products, which you always have to buy on the illicit market. When it comes to waxed thread, I buy it in bulk. Plus, I try to use material from shoes people throw out, as well as soles in good condition.
HT: I imagine there are ups and downs like in every business.
EM: Like every business in Cuba. Peak season is when it rains. It seems that shoes are being glued together with some defective material and they come apart with water. There are times when I have bags of shoes, including sandals, and I don’t even have time for lunch.
HT: How do you set your rates? Does the State demand that you offer a special rate?
EM: My work is based on supply and demand, I don’t have anything to do with the State. There are cobblers who join a services company, but I haven’t. I normally charge 30 pesos (1.20 USD) for gluing and stitching a shoe, but it depends on the kind of shoe, because I have to charge more for boots as they involve more work and more materials, of course. I don’t consider myself expensive, I try to adjust my prices to my customers and this leads to them leaving me a tip. I always charge up front, this saves me from working for nothing. I charge the elderly less, of course.
HT: When you work from home, is it hard to be disciplined with working hours?
EM: I try to be. There are days when I have to go buy raw materials, so I don’t open on that day. I normally start at about 8:30 AM and finish at 6 PM, if somebody comes with an emergency after hours, I do the work, but this also has its price. A lot of the time I have to do repairs on the spot.
HT: Do you have stories you would like to share?
EM: I try to work without haste, but there was this one time that a customer needed their shoe fixed right away, and in my haste, I dug the needle right into one hand. This kind of needle is like a hook at the end, it’s impossible to get out. I was given anesthetic at the hospital, and they had to push it through the other side because it could have torn a muscle.
HT: How much do you pay the State for your self-employment license?
EM: I pay 100 pesos per month, plus social security. Many inspectors come to check quite regularly, but I have everything in order, luckily. I don’t doubt there will be a time when something slips me, but I’m prepared.
HT: Do you think that cobblers will go extinct one day in Cuba?
EM: I’d like to believe they will, even if it leaves me without work, because this would mean that the shoes being sold are of excellent quality. The world is made up of dreamers and I don’t need to tell you I’m one of them. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to get ahead. I am a cobbler proud of my work, I like helping people. I like to think that if it wasn’t for me, many people in Old Havana and Centro Havana would be walking barefoot.